This year's summer movie season seems especially ... virile. From "Avengers" to "Battleship," Hollywood is administering a heavy dose of good guys giving their less-good counterparts what they deserve.
There's no doubt that these films, with their "so bad it's good" jokes and loud, ever-expanding action sequences, are massively entertaining. There's a reason "Marvel's The Avengers" has dialed up more than $1 billion in ticket sales: Action is great. And when it involves very little sex and profanity, it's fun for the whole family.
But there's a strikingly unsubtle undercurrent in this year's films. "Battleship" is an unapologetic a celebration of American triumphalism, which makes for great fun because the enemy is no longer Russian, Japanese or Arab. It's over-CGI'd aliens with goatees that appear to be combed through with a tube of Ice Spiker.
There's a similar theme in "Avengers," where a team of mostly, but not exclusively, American heroes convene to save New York from certain extinction at the hand of a longhaired maniac who rings up an army of extra-terrestrials to wreak havoc on the tiny island metropolis.
In each case, there is a wonderfully uncomplicated sense of victory. I had a wonderful time watching "Battleship," as did many of my colleagues in the media. Watching our military flex its muscles ("Battleship" even features a handful of veterans -- of multiple generations -- doing their thing) and so fantastically dominate any threat is fun, because it's familiar.
But what's the consequence of so eagerly cheering on our men and machines in fictional battles? Put another way, with the Pentagon collaborating on so many of these films, just how unrealistic are those feelings?
Not very. By celebrating these (admittedly "badass") victories over and over in the movies, we grow increasingly comfortable with watching American troops and instruments of war beat up on fictional enemies.
But in reality, one side of that equation is still there. So when we end up viewing and considering war, we consider that same military, those same impressive planes and ships, fighting a real life battle that can seem the same from our living room TVs as it did on an IMAX screen. Troops remain troops, aliens are replaced with persons of whatever ethnicity we're currently sitting across from on the moral see-saw.
A "Battleship" producer recently claimed that alien enemies allow the film to avoid "political hurdles about having the U.S. Navy portrayed as fighting another modern navy." That statement can be true only in a society where war itself is no longer politically controversial.
After all, even the word "alien" has a political application -- it's commonly used to denote foreigners we deem as undesirable.
Of course, humans can generally tell the difference between aliens and foreigners. But feelings, and memories of them, are harder to distinguish. A quick glance at Twitter after Obama announced Osama bin Laden's assassination would have revealed reactions that, though deeper and more meaningful, are not unlike the shouts of relief and laughter heard when Rihanna yells "Mahalo Motherf---er" while firing at an alien ship.
But don't take my word for it. This is how the aforementioned producer described the Navy's involvement with the film: "We made this movie because we wanted to showcase the modern Navy, which is a Navy that has not been seen in a film before. The real people on the ships, you can't take your eyes off of them, and these enormous ships just look so cinematic on the open ocean."
It's slightly troubling when the first word that comes to mind when describing warships is "cinematic."
Regardless, the Navy is now touting its involvement in the picture as part of its recruitment efforts.
Another extremely convenient aspect of movies is recovery time. In "The Avengers," more destruction is wrought on New York (presumably both in terms of property and people) than during the attacks on September 11. In "Battleship," there's quick mention of 25,000 people dying in a single attack on Hong Kong. And yet, an hour later in audience time (and not much more in the movie universe's time), we're laughing along with Liam Neeson and the guy from "Friday Night Lights" at a victory ceremony.
(There are, of course, other problems with these films. The Pentagon seems to have a policy loosely based on the following notion: If it makes America look good and strong, we're in. Which explains how it so happily cooperated with the "Transformers" franchise, despite dialogue exchanges such as "Could it be the Iranians?" / "No, this is way too smart for them." The only reason the Pentagon pulled out of "The Avengers" is because it wasn't sure enough that the United States was directing all of the superheroes' movements.)
No one could reasonably suggest that action movies should dwell on loss of life to any realistic extent. Nor should children be shielded from the overwhelming presence of the military in American life. And with a glance at upcoming releases, from "Prometheus" to "G.I. Joe: Retaliation" and "Transformers 4," it's perhaps clear that this editor's hesitation is not in line with our collective cultural appetite.
But families taking children to summer blockbuster after intergalactic war thriller would do well to end the evening with a conversation about the sacrifices incumbent in such fantastically bright explosions, by the men and women who actually wear the uniforms depicted on screen, by our society at large and, yes, by the real-life aliens who so often constitute our real-world enemies.
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